Wilhelm Sasnal, Untitled (Kacper and Anka), 2009, Oil on canvas, 180 x 220 cm, Private Collection, London.
Wilhelm Sasnal, Forest, 2003, Oil on canvas, Private Collection, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.
Wilhelm Sasnal, Maus 5, 2001,Oil on canvas,© the Artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.
Wilhelm Sasnal, Roy Orbison 1, 2007, Oil on canvas, 40 x 35 cm, Private Collection.
Haus der Kunst
+ 49 89 21127-115
February 3-May 13, 2012
The exhibition provides insight into Sasnal's work from 1999 to the present. It shows more than 60 paintings and a selection of his films.
Wilhelm Sasnal (b. 1972 in Tarnow, Poland), who has already attracted international attention with a series of solo exhibitions, finds his motifs in everyday life and in the media. His range of images includes portraits of family members and friends to icons of pop culture: a news photograph of a young girl in the rubble of the tsunami disaster in Japan to chapters in Poland's history, such as the World War II and the Holocaust. His paintings swing like a pendulum back and forth between the past and present.
Stylistically Wilhelm Sasnal blends the romantic with realism, abstraction with pop. He found his training at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts — the making of still lifes, nudes, and with a huge emphasis on art history, though only up to the beginning of the 20th century — to be "very technical" and removed from reality. "My life was different from that portrayed in the paintings they wanted me to refer to, which is why I wanted to depict what was around me." (Wilhelm Sasnal in an interview with Achim Borchardt-Hume, Chief Curator, Whitechapel Gallery, London)
For Wilhelm Sasnal painting is neither "a solitary practice" nor does it have "anything to do with withdrawing from society." His paintings express an approach to certain things, even when they are neither descriptive nor do they aim to criticize or praise certain aspects of the world. Wilhelm Sasnal believes that painting can simultaneously refer to both itself and the world. An example of this is his painting Bathers at Asnieres (2010), which directly refers to Georges Seurat's eponymous painting 1883/84. "I like its melancholy and the fact that though it depicts a beautiful day, everyone is separate," says Wilhelm Sasnal. Seurat's painting also reminds him of a place from his childhood and of the stories his grandmother told him about the summer of 1939; that summer — just before the outbreak of the World War II — was so hot that people spent their days at the river.
The years 2000/2001 were decisive for Wilhelm Sasnal: In Poland Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus was published, Claude Lanzmann's nine-hour documentary Shoah (1985) was shown and Jan Tomasz Gross' book Neighbours (2001) appeared on the market. After a period in which the Polish people saw themselves exclusively as victims of the Nazis, such publications made their involvement and participation in these atrocities a subject of discussion. Wilhelm Sasnal initially found the necessity of this shift in perspective disturbing. In 2001 he painted five works in the style of the comic book Maus, in which Art Spiegelman portrayed Nazis as cats, Jews as mice, Poles as pigs and Americans as dogs. For the series Wilhelm Sasnal appropriated the stark black-and-white graphic style and explored the question of how much of the comic's content could be conveyed by an image taken out of context and without any speech bubbles. In the Maus paintings he presents an isolated person or scene, free of the action's momentum.
In general his paintings often recall the impression of stillness and yet they are action-loaded. This tension is characteristic. The model for the painting Shoah (Translator) (2003) is, for example, a still from Lanzmann's eponymous film. The painting Untitled (Rubber & Metal) (2000) can be read like a comic; it is a sequence of 12 individual images, each of which depicts a small piece of metal. From the right black rubber tires slide into the picture and roll over the metal, getting damaged in the process. The idea for the painting goes back to a simulation of the Concorde disaster in July 2000: A piece of metal on the runway punctured the tires and — two minutes after takeoff — caused the plane to crash. With such appropriations Wilhelm Sasnal asks if "painting perhaps can contain more narrative than film. However, both share a certain atmosphere of anticipation."
Four images by the Mexican photographer Enrique Metinides — renowned for his detailed photographs of disasters and deaths — formed the basis of the so-called Metinides paintings from 2003. For these works, however, Wilhelm Sasnal deleted the photographs' relevant information and narrative elements: Aid workers helping after a plane crash no longer have any facial features (Us, 2006), and he reduces the representation of an electrocuted person to a pile, conductor, flame and smoke — the dead man is missing. The Metinides paintings are an example of how the artist inserts an analytical level, which is perceptible as the distance between the event and the painter, and between the painting and the viewer.
Depending on the subject, Wilhelm Sasnal also changes his painting style. In early paintings like the Maus series there are little personal traces of the author in the brushwork. In later individual paintings the application of paint is rich or impasto. The billowy grass through which four women — portrayed from behind — are walking to approach a barren hill is wiped onto the canvas using ribbed fabric (Untitled, 2004); Photophobia (2007), which expresses the hangover feeling and the abhorrence of light, is painted with the artist's fingers. For the topic of radiation and nuclear power Wilhelm Sasnal forewent control of the paint and let it run across the canvas (Power Plant in Iran, 2010).
Taken as a whole, Sasnal's works from the last decade attest to his passion for the history of painting and his conceptual exploration of painting as a medium. When speaking about the lengthy process of writing his latest novel, Gary Shteyngart said that a book set in the present is already an historical novel when it is published. Wilhelm Sasnal meets this risk of immediate devaluation with the timelessness of art. His selection from the mass of images in comic books, newspapers, television and the Internet tells its very own "Super Sad True Love Story."
The catalogue Wilhelm Sasnal is available in English; with an essay by Ulrich Wilmes and an interview conducted by Achim Borchardt-Hume, Chief Curator, Whitechapel Gallery, London with the artist; ISBN 978-0-85488-199-4.
The exhibition is organised by Whitechapel Gallery, London, in collaboration with Haus der Kunst, Munich.